Good grief! Every time I tune into CNET, there is another version of a mobile phone being introduced. I could list multiple manufacturers cranking out newer versions of their products before the batteries on a previous version need their first recharge. All these rapid release versions are generating an aversion to the high-tech market in general on my part.
Last year, I bought a Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC) Galaxy II phone the day it came to market at my local AT&T store. Now, the Galaxy III, with all the latest wiz bangs, has eclipsed my phone features. I am not going to upgrade and initiate a consumption spiral that would be possible with this or at least a dozen other electronic gadgets in my "must have" arsenal. Not too long ago, the R&D cycle took two years from conception to release. Now it is less than a year, and I think I know how it is being done.
The electronics industry is designing and producing more and more hybridization and integration at the semiconductor chip level, so that we can now have entire subsystems, including multiple input/outputs, on a die less than one-third the size of a dime. These are the same functional circuits that formally required entire printed circuit boards with hundreds of components, if not thousands. Now manufacturers can circumvent the discrete circuit's design costs and development time by using a single chip costing much less than a dollar and incorporating it into any number of product designs.
Add to this chip memory, power, displays, processors, GPS, FPGAs, wireless transmit and receive chips, other single-chip hybridized circuits, passives, perhaps an ASIC, and interconnects, and now you have all the essential ingredients for thousands of mobile and other products popping up in retail stores throughout the world.
Features, appearance, and price are still key factors in what people will buy, but I contend that in the coming years, the three things that will determine which product a buyer will select will be product appearance, support, and reliability. To that end, service reputation and upgrade costs will become key to the competitive marketplace. There will no longer be feature-to-feature or display-to-display comparisons, because the price for all these components will be flattened by universally adopted processing technologies, material optimization, lower power modules, and even higher levels of integration.
It is not that hard to imagine an entire smartphone on a single chip costing less than a buck. Maybe it will take two or three years to get there, but we will get there. Look at the introductory pricing for handheld GPS units, and now understand that the entire technology is being put on half-inch RFID bricks with 64Kb of memory inclusive.
The winners of the competition in the near term will be the companies that can build the most functionality via software feature enablement at the lowest cost with the highest reliability and the best tech support for all the new features. The "it-also-looks-really-cool" factor will always be a part of the buyer's decision, so let's all give a big hand to Apple's hardware designers. They are the innovators of today and most likely for some time to come.
Ultimately, appearance will win the market. When all features cost the same and all day-to-day consumer devices become incredibly affordable, then appearance (with ergonomic considerations in mind) will become the last key differentiator among products offering identical functionality.
Industrial designers will be much more in demand as this trend continues. If I was starting over in engineering, I would go for an industrial design degree to assure my professional future. Software advancements and automation will not take the place of a creative mind with CAD and 3D modeling skills and a proficiency for finite element analysis.
All other things being equal, people will buy the best-looking item on the shelf. Now the competition among products boasting identical functionality will be for eye-level shelving.